I Still Have a Suitcase in Berlin

DSC08947One of the many reasons I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Berlin earlier this year was the city’s ability to seamlessly blend the old (history, architecture, and the like) with the new. Around practically every corner were sobering reminders of the past: the deep history of Germany, Jews in Germany, and life in a Nazi occupied State. This was tempered, however, by the present: young German families happily pushing strollers through street markets, modern and striking architecture, and many ethnic cultures living together with ease, at least from my perspective. It was a fascinating five days in a city I have read much about, and I was delighted to finally see it with my own eyes. While Bob had been to Berlin once before, it was in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin wall, so as you can imagine, much has changed, so for him it was like visiting for the first time as well.

We started with a visit to the Berlin Wall Memorial. This mile long open air park is located along “no-man’s land,” the former strip between East and West Berlin. The memorial is dotted with excellent signage and displays that tell the stories of people who tried (some with success and some with failure) to escape over and under the wall. There are markings of the exact tunnel locations that were dug under the wall, there are photographs of West Berliners who assisted in their fellow German’s escape from East Berlin, and even a small stretch of the preserved wall, complete with a guard tower. DSC09002I learned so much from this outstanding Memorial. Almost 30 years later, life has moved on around no-man’s land. Homes have built up where once was the “death strip.” Vegetable and flower gardens dot the landscape, and children ride their bikes through the park, paying little or no attention to the history. Life moves on, whether we want it to or not.

Another day found us on a Rick Steves walk of the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate. The Reichstag is the home of Germany’s government. A very modern and architecturally stunning building, admittance to the Reichstag is free, but reservations are required. Once admitted, you can ride the elevator to the glass dome, with a cone of 360 mirrors that reflect natural light into the legislative chambers below. The dome has a ramp that visitors can walk up to see the sights of the city from on high. Damaged during WWII by fire and air raids, the Reichstag was rebuilt in 1999. It is well worth making reservations, which we made online, but can at times be made on the spot. Note that ID is required.

Later in the day we took the U-Bahn, Berlin’s rapid transit railway, to KaDeWe, or Kaufhaus des Westens, as it is officially known, Europe’s second largest department store. Here we went straight to the 6th floor, devoted entirely to, you guessed it, food and drink. We browsed the food options, but really were intent on getting a seat at the Budvar Bar, where we had two beers each, IMG_5836as well as potato and sausage soup and two pretzels. It was outstanding. There were many “old-timers” sitting in the bar, drinking beer and chatting with the highly efficient bartenders. Bob noted that when we settled up, the barman who took our money was not the one who had served us, but he knew exactly what we had eaten and drunk and quickly gave us the tab. That’s good service. It is definitely worth a stop, not to mention a beer or two.

We had a sobering visit at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. More than 2700 coffin shaped pillars cover a Berlin city block, remembering the six million Jews killed by Nazis during WWII. The memorial was constructed in 2005, and Rick Steves says using the word “murdered” in the Memorial’s title was intentional and quite a big deal. We also went in the information center, which among other things, follows 15 Jewish families from all different backgrounds who all were murdered.

We walked a great deal in Berlin, exploring many different neighborhoods, including our Airbnb’s own, the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. What was once an area for artists, students, squatters and idealists, is now an up and coming hipster and young family district. We enjoyed beautiful architecture here, as well as a street market and the chance to see a renewed Berlin. We ended up at MauerPark, once—again—another area that used to be no man’s land between East and West Berlin. DSC08991Now a lively park, this neighborhood gathering place includes an 800 meter remaining section of the Berlin wall that is now known as a graffiti wall where artists paint their work, covering up what was once a sad part of history with a new and bright energy, not unlike Berlin as a whole.

Notes:

I’m a big fan of Rick Steves guidebooks, as I believe they give updated and detailed information better than any other series out there. Steves’ Berlin guide is the best yet, as there was so much we learned on the walks detailed in the book. There were so many tiny sights that we would have walked right by if Rick wasn’t telling us where to look for them.

As I mentioned above, Berlin is quite big and spread out, so we took advantage of the excellent U-Bahn system to get to further distances in the city. Easy to use, the fares range from 2-4 euros depending on the distance traveled.

If you’re looking for an excellent gift from Berlin, we bought chocolates at an 150 year old chocolate shop, Rausch. Even if you’re not buying, it’s worth a stop to see huge designs on display, made out of chocolate. DSC09041Another excellent shop is the Ampelmänn Shop, selling the iconic Berlin Ampelmännchen brand (little traffic light men). The Ampelmännchen is the symbol shown on pedestrian signals in Germany, and is one of the few features of East Germany that is still proudly recognized.

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Wading in the Water at Zion National Park

By Robert Bestor

I sure enjoy an adventure. But on the other hand, these days I’m not really excited about roughing it. In fact, I’m man enough to admit that any adventure that features easy access, quality rental gear, spectacular scenery, and a hot shower and soft bed at the end of the day is right up my alley. Our recent visit to Utah’s Zion National Park and our “conquering” of its magnificent Narrows Trail is a perfect example of a perfect day in the wilderness for me.

DSC09471The USA’s spectacular national park system is one of its greatest treasures. And while we’ve had the pleasure to visit more than a few, we were brimming with anticipation about our trip to Zion, as it had been a long while since we’d explored any of its most famous offerings.

We flew into Las Vegas, which is about a 3-hour drive from Zion. And, after a taqueria stop along the way, we headed straight to Zion Outfitter (they’re right at the south park entrance) where we rented their “Warm Weather” equipment package, which includes canyoneering boots, neoprene socks and a hiking stick. The package was $24 per person for the day, worth every penny, and we were able to pick everything up late in the afternoon, prior to our Narrows adventure the next day. Getting our gear in advance was key to getting on the “trail” bright and early to beat the crowds.DSC09564

For the easy access portion of our Zion visit we rented a cozy Airbnb in Orderville, Utah, which is about a 40-minute drive through the park to its southern entrance. We chose Orderville because it is close to Bryce Canyon National Park as well, which we also visited on this trip (story to come in a future eNews).

To beat the aforementioned crowds, were up before dawn. After our drive back to the park we found ample parking and were soon on a free park bus en route to the trailhead. Most of Zion is accessible only by bus. The buses run early and often and help to keep the park quiet and traffic free.

The Narrows Canyon trail begins at the Temple of Sinawa, which is the last stop on the park bus, and when we hopped off at about 8am only about a dozen other hikers hopped off with us. And soon after we set foot in the Virgin River (which begins after a one mile paved walkway) and had all spread out, it really did seem like we had the place to ourselves. At the end of the day we’d discover what a good idea it was to beat the crowds.DSC09528 (1)

It was a gorgeous morning. Perfect for hiking in the cool water in shorts and windbreaker. And with our canyoneering booties and hiking poles, moving through the water was fairly easy. The booties are surprisingly grippy and the water was crystal clear which made it easy to see where we needed to step. And don’t think that you don’t need the hiking stick. We saw a couple of hikers without them and even though we were there on a relatively low flow day, they didn’t look very comfortable negotiating the uneven surfaces, slippery rocks and rushing water. We spent most of the day in water about ankle to calf high, with a few spots where the water went to our thighs. The water flow was 30 cubic feet per second (CFS) on our visit.

The canyon is sublime. Its walls tower upwards of 1,000 feet above and are painted with earth tones that seemed to continually change in color and intensity as the morning light worked its wizardry. Early in our day we turned to look behind us and were astounded by a shining gold rock wall that was simply not there when we viewed it from the other direction. It was quite a sight.

According to Nancy’s Fitbit we put in about 11.5 miles on our out-and-back hike, which included a leisurely lunch in the sun and a short side trip up Orderville Canyon, which is an even narrower offshoot. We took our time and made lots of stops for pictures, snacks and to simply sit and enjoy our stunning surroundings.DSC09469

It wasn’t too long after we decided to turn around that we started to run into more of our fellow hikers. It was a trickle at first, but of course, the closer we got to the trailhead, the more crowded it became. We got back to the paved trail at about 3pm and over the mile leading up to that point we saw hundreds and hundreds of hikers (if not more!). It was quite the contrast to our early morning experience and made our pre-dawn wake up entirely worth it.

Soon we were back to civilization and looking for a burger and a beer. We found both and it wasn’t long after that we were sitting on the porch of our cute little airbnb, drinks in hand, reliving the day. It was then that I realized that I had seen The Golden Wall of the Zion Narrows and was set to sleep in a soft bed the same night. Perfection indeed. 

Notes:

The Narrows does close frequently in the spring, whenever the water flow is above 150 cubic feet per second. This is most common in March and April. It also closes when there is a flash flood warning.

We bought a seven day Zion National Park Pass for our car that cost $35. If you’re going to at least three national parks in a year’s time, the annual national park pass is the better deal, at $80, valid for 12 months.

The Wonders of Slot Canyons

There are so many beautiful and amazing natural wonders around the world that sometimes I forget we have beautiful and amazing natural wonders right here in the United States too. (Cue the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum & Bugle Corp playing America the Beautiful.) Last month, Bob and I were fortunate enough to visit one such natural wonder, the Slot Canyons of Horseshoe Bend, on the Navajo Reservation just outside of Page, Arizona. IMG_6377We were on a long weekend getaway with Bob’s sister and her husband, hiking in both Zion and Bryce National Parks—two more natural wonders that we’ll cover in a future newsletter. But we had heard great things about the slot canyons in the area, and took an opportunity to explore.

There are several majestic slot canyons in the Bryce/Zion area and, most, if not all, require a guided tour or permit from the Navajo Reservation. We chose Horseshoe Bend Slot Canyon Tours because a) they have the best reviews on Trip Advisor, b) they have their own private slot canyon, and c) they are Navajo and female owned. Our tour had ten people plus a guide, and we were the only 11 people in the canyon.

Formed by the wear and tear of water and wind rushing through rock, IMG_6383slot canyons are much deeper than they are wide, and their color variation is a site to behold. Our tour left from the town of Page, in an open air jeep that easily sat our group of 10. From Page, we drove about three miles onto the Navajo Reservation, before turning off onto a private dirt road. About six bumpy and fun miles later, we arrived at Horseshoe Bend Slot Canyon. Our guide Nick first explained the history of both the Canyon and the family who owns the land that it is on. He also educated us on the area’s flora and fauna and even offered a few IMG_6365excellent tips for slot canyon iPhone photography. It wasn’t long though before we were hiking along the narrow, sandy canyon floor, with its walls reaching high above, and exploring its beautiful colors, shapes, and cracks and crevices.

After our slot canyon experience, Nick drove us to the Horseshoe Bend Overlook (again, in a private location, with only our group of 11) for a sunset view IMG_6441of the Colorado River 1000 feet below. Horseshoe Bend is a horseshoe shaped section of the river, just five miles from the beginning of Grand Canyon National Park. Our cliffside view, with the sun setting in the distance, a few clouds dotting the sky, and the river bend below, was quite a spectacular.

Our tour lasted almost four hours, and cost $120 each. Other popular tours, including the Antelope Slot Canyon, are less expensive and while equally beautiful, they are also significantly more populated. We were delighted with our experience, and felt like the cost was well worth it.

Follow the Rules—Negotiating EasyJet’s Carry-on Policy

On our most recent trip to Europe, Bob and I spent several days in each of three cities— Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague. When booking our transportation, we pondered the best (and cheapest!) way to get from place to place and decided to fly with EasyJet for two legs, and take the train for the third leg, because we love traveling by train in Europe. With lots of low cost carriers competing for passengers, airfares on discounted European airlines are extremely inexpensive (our flights were about $60 a piece). There are also many options for time of day you wish to travel, and we found EasyJet, well, we found it easy!

Here are a few things to note when booking an airline ticket on a discounted European carrier. EasyJet’s economy fare allows for one carry on bag, but no personal items. This bag can be a traditional maximum carry on size, but unless you are willing to pay a little extra to be an “up front” or “extra leg room” customer, you cannot bring a purse or backpack in addition to a suitcase. We paid an extra $5 apiece—again, inexpensive in our opinion—to be “up front” customers and we each carried a suitcase on board, along with a good-sized tote bag for me (the Baggallini Avenue Tote), and a backpack for Bob. In addition to bringing a personal item on board, we also got seats in the front of the plane and boarded first. I don’t care about boarding early, but it sure is nice to get off the plane immediately, and not have to wait for what seems like an eternity for everyone else to disembark.

When entering our gate prior to boarding, EasyJet had employees checking boarding passes against the number of carry-ons, and making travelers with questionably sized suitcases put them into the “box” to measure their size. Several passengers were told to check their bags, because they were too fat, or slightly too long to fit in the box. We had internationally sized carry-ons from Briggs & Riley that fit easily into the box, so we had no problem. Generally speaking, internationally sized carry on bags are an inch or so shorter than their domestic counterparts. Most airlines (even discount carriers) however, do allow for the traditional 22 x 14 x 9 domestic size. Keep in mind that there are much tighter weight restrictions on some discounted European carriers. Some airlines restrict a carry on to be no more than 15 pounds. If you’re worried about the size or weight of your suitcase, check with every carrier that you will be flying on. It’s both annoying and expensive to have to check a bag at the airport, when you were planning to carry it on.

EasyJet is a “no frills” airline. All on board food and drink costs money, even water. Unlike Allegiant however, we did have assigned seats for no extra charge.

One more interesting note—on none of our inter-European flights did anyone check our passports. Not when we were going through security, not when we boarded the plane, nothing. Hmmm.

Bodies in the Sand, Tropical Drink Melting in Your Hand

When our daughter Sarah was in middle school, she had a much earlier bedtime than most of her schoolmates (Sarah is about to graduate college, with a math degree that she completed in three years. She is headed to graduate school to get her masters in teaching. You’re welcome Sarah.) She struggled with getting to sleep, and would find one reason after another to come downstairs and talk to Bob or I. She’d often find Bob watching episodes of Seinfeld and in an attempt to delay her return to bed, she’d ask Bob questions about it, who the characters were, what it was about, etc. She got so mad when Bob would tell her the show was “about nothing.

I was reminded of this when reading an article on Afar recently in which the author said she had a hard time doing “absolutely nothing” when on a beach vacation. Everyone’s interpretation of absolutely nothing is entirely different of course, as the Seinfeld analogy details, but I must admit, doing absolutely nothing when on a beach vacation has never been hard for me. beach belizeBob and I often take city vacations, where we’re on the go all the time, walking, eating, and trying to burn a few extra calories so we can eat more. But when we go on a beach vacation, a switch in my brain just seems to turn off, and I can sit in a lounge chair staring at the ocean for hours on end. Sure, I probably have a book or magazine with me, but I don’t always read it. My ideal beach vacation is lounging under an umbrella, with water, a magazine and book at the ready, and slowly sipping on a cold cocktail. IMG_1125And if my girlfriends are nearby, even better. We talk when we have something to say—I don’t know what it is with girlfriends, but we always seem to have something to say—we nap when we’re sleepy, jump in the ocean when we’re hot, and eat things that take the least amount of time to prepare, because we’re on vacation, and cooking on vacation is for the birds. It’s also ideal when there are others at the beach, because people watching is another fun doing-nothing pastime.

Mastering the art of doing nothing is, in my opinion, really not that hard. I try, when possible, to get a little exercise in before the beach lounging begins, so my muscles don’t atrophy. IMG_0027I leave my phone/computer/wifi off, figuring if the world got along without me for so many years before cell phones existed, they can get along without me for a few days when I’m on the beach. And I just let go of the idea that a vacation has to be about doing all kinds of things. A vacation is about what you want it to be about. If that means laying in a hotel room watching movies (I’ve been known to do this with my girlfriends too), that is a vacation as well. If it means reading a dozen Harlequin romance novels, good on you. And if it means laying on the beach in some exotic destination (or even the Oregon Coast) and doing absolutely nothing, you go. And please, take me with you.

These Streets will Make You Feel Brand New—Walking in New York

by Nancy Bestor

New York City has an endless number of outstanding sites. Whether it’s the view from the Empire State Building, the 9/11 Memorial, the lovely Brooklyn Bridge, the Metropolitan Museum, or any of a myriad of other great stops, there are certainly days, weeks, and even years worth of fascinating Big Apple attractions. But for me, New York is also about walking – meandering through different neighborhoods, exploring architecture, and people watching. IMG_6149On a recent trip with my sister, I did just that. I pooh-poohed the idea of any big attractions, and instead just walked and walked, stopping to take in alluring side streets, appealing shops, and gorgeous hotel lobbies, and enjoying the New York scene. Along the way I managed to sneak in a few snacks, some cocktails, and a half priced off-Broadway show.

One morning, after meeting a New York friend for breakfast near Columbia University, IMG_6141I walked back downtown, a 60-plus block journey along Central Park West, enjoying the dog walkers, the attractive apartment buildings with ornate doors and dapper doormen, and the views of Central Park.

On another occasion I trekked to the Chelsea neighborhood, to enjoy its 1.5 mile long High Line, New York City’s elevated park, located 30 feet above ground level on a former train viaduct. I can’t visit New York and not walk the High Line, and even though flowers were not yet in full bloom, High Line Park’s trees and shrubs were beautiful, IMG_6166as was the city view in every direction. The High Line just might be my favorite thing about New York. Well, one of my favorites anyway.

I also walked through the Garment District and stopped in at another favorite, the free museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. One of the current exhibits examines the relationship between the fashion industry and body politics, with corsets and other garments for women of all sizes throughout the ages on display. IMG_6162There was clothing for pregnant women from the 1940’s and 50’s that did everything it could to hide their pregnancy. Fortunately times have changed, at least in some regards. But don’t get me started.

Later that afternoon, I met up with my traveling companions and we taxied to Chinatown, which with traffic took almost as long as a walk would have taken. We were hungry though, and needed sustenance from Vanessa’s Dumpling House (another NYC favorite!) before we could consider walking any further.

When my steamed dumplings and peking duck pancake had filled my belly IMG_6597and given me the strength to carry on, we wandered around China Town and stopped to watch a few minutes of an intense game of handball, a sport that is apparently very popular in New York City. I thought it would be like the handball games I played in elementary school, but I was mistaken, as it’s taken very seriously. Good thing I figured that out before asking to play.

Afterwards we made our way, this time via the subway, to Times Square, where we waited about 15 minutes in the TKTS play line for half price tickets to an evening off-Broadway play. Here’s a secret, if you download the TKTS app onto your phone, you can see in advance which plays and musicals are being discounted for the day. The ticket booth for evening performances opens at 3, and when we arrived at 2:45, the line for musicals was already nearly two hours long. But the play line, on the other side of the booth, was short. We saw Amy and the Orphans that night, for $50 each. It was a great play and a great price. And we didn’t wait in line for two hours either.

Note:

If you’re a regular reader of our newsletters, (thank you!), you’ll know I’m a big fan of public transportation. And New York’s subway system does not disappoint. I took the subway from JFK airport, and my total travel time was about an hour and half. My sister and her crew arrived earlier than I, and their taxi ride was only about 20 minutes shorter and $60 split three ways. My ride was $9. Single subway rides in the city are $3, and you can buy a pass if you plan to ride more often, which lowers the per ride cost. I find the NY subway full of fascinating people, and by the time I get off at my station, I’ve made up a whole life story for everyone sitting around me.

Every Single Big Ol’ Jet Aero Liner

By Robert Bestor

I love the internet and try not to take it for granted. As we all know, it has everything. And though it has everything, for me, websites can almost all be placed into two categories: 1) those with vital and valuable information and data that allows me to educate myself and make quality decisions, and 2) those that offer little more than mildly amusing, time sucking, and mindless “entertainment” that distracts me from doing whatever it is I really should be doing. 

While that may be a slight over-simplification, I do find it to be true. I also find that, wonderfully, there are some sites that fit simultaneously into both categories. FlightAware.com is an excellent example. It is both highly informative and can be a fabulously fascinating waste of time. On top of that, to me, it’s a mind-blowing example of modern technology.

Simply click this link. On this FlightAware.com page, in real time, you’ll see every single commercial flight currently operating over the United States. Hit the zoom out button a couple of times and you’ll see every single commercial flight currently operating everywhere in the world!

Then click on any one of the plane icons and you’ll get information like departure city, arrival city, elapsed time, time remaining, aircraft type, air speed, altitude and more. How’s that for starters? FlightAware offers much more. I’ve done a decent amount of browsing and am still drilling down and finding new and fascinating data.

It does have practical purposes too. I used it recently to check the on-time history of a winter flight we had scheduled. FlightAware’s data informed us that at the time, the flight had recent history of both significant delays and cancellations. We had a tight connection to make, and due to weather, the odds of us making it were not in our favor. So for a minimal change fee (story in our March e-News) we switched to an earlier flight and removed all doubt. 

FlightAware integrates real-time data from thousands of sources worldwide. And I do not have the brain power to imagine how they tie all together so neatly and seamlessly. But I sure do find it handy, entertaining, and amazing to get the latest data on any flight anywhere on the planet.

Oops. Looks like Tap Portugal flight #22 from Lisbon to Salvador, Brazil is running 22 minutes late. It’s scheduled to land at 9:00 pm local time. I wonder if they’ll be able to make that up? I see that it’s an Airbus A330-200 twin jet currently traveling 526 mph at 38,000 feet. Looks like it’s been late a few times recently……etc., etc., etc,.